Thursday, May 23, 2013
The Wimberlely City Council approved an exemption for the notice requirements typically associated with the purchase of Certificates of Obligation (COs) during regular session on May 16. The vote was 3-1, with Place 2 councilman Mac McCullough abstaining and Place 3’s Matt Meek voting against the measure.
"There are a handful of exemptions from the notice requirements that are allowed when it comes to COs," said City Administrator Don Ferguson. "Among those are the issuance of COs to address a public health issue and issuance for public services. The council has chosen to seek the exemption for professional services."
It will be up to the Texas Attorney General’s Office (AG) to approve the request, but it is expected to easily pass muster. Civic governmental entities frequently seek public notification exemptions for professional services.
Earlier this month, the council approved COs to fund a $650,000 loan of the same amount granted by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to design a potential wastewater plant. The city will pay back the COs with $75,000 annually until the notes are retired.
"We don’t want to risk the issuance of COs in this case to a possible election petition and the delay that might result," Ferguson said. "The note will be repaid over the next 10 years and the funds will come from our current wastewater and general fund revenues. Our projections show we will have the money to pay that off without any kind of property tax. The TWDB required us to pledge, as a last resort, property taxes."
But Ferguson said property taxes would not be necessary to fund the TWDB.
"Shy of an unforeseen disaster, we don’t see that happening," Ferguson said. "We think we will have no problem with this."
Now the city will brief the AG’s office.
"Once we get a ruling from then, we will move forward with the issuance of the COs," Ferguson said.
The council room was packed with concerned residents. Some opposed the issuance of the COs, while others were on hand to urge the city to move forward with a solution for the leaking septic issues that have been plaguing the square for decades. E-coli testing at Cypress Creek Bridge on Ranch Road 12 consistently hit record highs throughout last year, at times topping nine times the limit that is safe for human interaction. In April of this year, that location tested at 238 e-coli colonies per 100 milliliters (ml). This month, that number jumped to 345. When the number tops 394 colonies per 100 ml, there is a greater chance that pathogenic organisms are present.
However, the issue that primarily divides local residents is not whether the city take steps to correct the dilemma, but rather what is the best method to do so.
Earlier this year, the city approved "Option 4," which would expand the current wastewater facility at Blue HOle Regional Park that would process waste into "Type 1" effluent, considered high quality. The effluent would primarily be used as spray irrigation of soccer fields and other areas at the park. In times of heavy rainfall, there could be effluent discharge into deer Creek, a tributary of the Blanco River system. The cost has been estimated at $4.45 million.
Option 4 has it proponents and its detractors. The opposition against Option 4 is rooted in multiple concerns—the potential discharge, the expansion of a plant in a regional park that is home to an iconic Texas swimming hole, and fiscal concerns that the city would be better served by partnering with Aqua Texas, a private water and wastewater company that owns the Certificate of Convenience and Necessity (CCD) on the other side of Cypress Creek.
Aqua’s plan offers each downtown retailer the opportunity to receive Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) approved wastewater service for a one-time impact fee of $2,572 and a typical monthly fee for water treatment of $87.95. These fees assume the use of a 5/8-inch meter. The cost would be in the neighborhood of $4 million, but the cost would only serve the businesses on the square and the city would have absolutely no control over customer rates. Aqua Texas has been engaged in some of the most contentious rate cases in the history of the state. One such case included Woodcreek. The firm has also been plagued by sewage spills at its Plum Creek plant in Kyle.
However, Mayor Bob Flocke told residents that the city is still flexible concerning the eventual wastewater system that is designed. But he argued that the city couldn’t move forward without the loan.
Flocke said he had a "vision" for how the process should proceed.
"I think that we have people at stakeholders meetings who say what they want to say to get the system they want—which may not include watering the park—in fact, I am in favor of taking watering the park out of the issue," Flocke said. "It may involved in going with the people north of Cypress Creek [Aqua Texas] who already have a treatment plant going and a system that can be expanded. I would like to see us on the city council as listening—not running the meeting."
He even suggested the city have an independent moderator to conduct public meetings as a final plan is approved.
"The vision includes a neatly-wrapped package being presented to the council that people want," Flocke said. "Perhaps not all the people might agree with it, but it would be the best system that could be worked out. It may involved a system that has nothing to do with those we have discussed. There may be something out there that we don’t know about. But we can’t get there without the loan. I am all for people being involved in the process, but what concerns me is that if we go to a vote [over the COs] we will have to get an extension. That means kicking it down the line and then the money may not be there for us."
Flocke said that without the study, the city may never get to a real solution, regardless of what may be.
"But I don’t have a vote," Flocke said.
City officials were indicating they chose Option 4 in order to qualify for the TWDB loan.
"We have to develop a solution that fits the problem," said Place 4 councilman Steve Thurber. "That is what the loan is for. We have to solve that problem."
Thurber said it was imperative the city move forward voluntarily or face state action to force a solution.
Place 5’s John White said he had signed a pledge that would require the matter go before the public for a vote, but said that as he evaluated the circumstance, he also felt the city must move forward to bring in professional engineers to design a wastewater plant.
"We are between a rock and a hard place," White said. "We can’t even have the public meetings that people want until we get some money in here and get down to facts—not misleading things like this."
White was referencing a handout petition that had circulated in the community making allegations about the city’s motives, calling on a study to identify offending septic systems on the square and potential consequences of the city expanding its wastewater plant at Blue Hole. It also called for the issuance of COs to be decided by public vote. A majority of the council denounced the handout as being misleading and inaccurate.
The surprise vote was Place 1 councilman Tom Talcott, who has urged the council to keep the discussion of how to best deal with the sewage dilemma to correcting the pollution issue on the square, and de-emphasize the use of effluent to water Blue Hole Regional Park.
"I have spoken with a lot of you and a petition on this may not count as much as a petition on the overall solution," Talcott said. "I’ve been advocating that the discussion be about the pollution and not about a watering system at Blue Hole and everything that was attached to it. The pollution at the creek has always been my primary concern. The other thing is that the only other way to speed this up is that after we get an engineering study, that we at least try out our sewage partners on the other side of the creek [Aqua Texas], and that would solve it and bring it in a year earlier than going out for alternative bids."
But the way forward, Talcott said, was to see what professional engineers recommend and that he agreed with White.
Some residents said they objected to the exemptions because they wanted the city to use the typical process when selecting professional services to help look into the sewage dilemma.
Meeks said he had concerns with the application for the loan.
"I guess my biggest problem with it is the way the application was written," Meeks said before casting the lone dissenting vote. "Now we are trying to exempt things. You talk about distrust? That leads us right there."
Resident Henry Alt said the wastewater dilemma on the square seemed like an issue that draws a lot of conversation, but never really gets solved.
"I’ve been here 10 years now and we’ve been talking about it since I got here," Alt said, urging patience for all views as the process moved forward.
Resident Mary Kate Brown echoed those sentiments. Brown has been critical of the process, but took a more conciliatory tact in her remarks to council.
"I thank you for your willingness to take on this task of local government," Brown said. "The weight that falls on your shoulders is often more backbreaking at the local level than even at the federal level, because you guys have to look us in the eye. It is not easy for you to put aside your personal issues, so I want to thank you for that. I am very disheartened at tennis match that has happened at times over the last few months. I would like to see the name calling of other people’s opinions stop. This project will come and go, but we will always be neighbors. What makes Wimberley great is not its scenic treasures, but the people—and it will always be the people. Conflict resolution is not something that people come by naturally. It is something that you have to exercise and perfect. So I ask for a round-table discussion with mediation to allow for the best solution to prevail—not the [opinions of the] most active group or most charismatic leaders."
Debbie Keck called on a public referendum to decide the fate of the COs.
"I would like to call for a vote for the issuance of debt that is incurred in my name," Keck said.
Gail Pigg said she didn’t want to "be part of a generation responsible" for putting a wastewater plant at Blue Hole.